North by Northwest may be the first play I’ve seen that comes with a credits sequence.

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Peter Houghton, Matt Day (on couch), Tom Davey, Ezra Bix in North by Northwest. Image by Darren Thomas. 

As the ensemble gathers at the front of the stage, dressed in their mid-century Manhattan finest, the set descends lined with A4 paper. The cast each tear off piece, grabbing and swapping at each other’s sheets before lining up to spell out the play’s name, rushing back around to spell Alfred Hitchcock’s, before throwing the balled-up pages at the audience. The scene’s not telling us anything we don’t know, but what comes through is how much fun the cast is having.

It’s the first of the production’s endless contrasts between high-budget polish, and low-budget imagination. Esther Marie Hayes’ pitch-perfect costuming, including a lovely replica of the red brocade gown worn by Eva Marie Saint in the film, plays out against set pieces cobbled together from tables and chairs. Slick projection and lighting are used to show hand-puppeted DIY recreations of the film’s iconic scenes, in ways I wouldn’t dare spoil for you. The black-and-steel backdrop glides soundlessly up and down, but is used to frame the kind of play-acting you’d see from a show built on nothing but a shipping pallet set and a prayer.

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Amber McMahon and Matt Day in North by Northwest. Image by Darren Thomas.

Central here is the impossibility of adapting Hitchcock’s North by Northwest for the stage. The movie is a whirlwind of locations and thriller set-pieces, strung together out of a desperate need to include every idea the writers had. It’s pure Hollywood. Playwright Carolyn Burns and director/dramaturg/busy person Simon Phillips make only subtle changes to the screenplay, cutting establishing-shot filler to maximise its speed (and increasing the age of Eve Kendall from 26 to 28, which combines with a younger Roger Thornhill to lessen the weird gap in the film’s romantic pairing – a nice touch).

It’s a real challenge adapting something so cinematic. But – and here’s the twist – I think that’s why the movie was chosen for stage treatment. This production, with its runaway-train pace, treats its material like an obstacle course: the joy, for the audience, is in watching from a comfortable seat as the cast and crew gleefully exhaust themselves.

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The company of North by Northwest. Image by Darren Thomas.

North by Northwest places serious demands on its cast, so it’s a good thing they’re up to it. Matt Day leads in the role made famous by Cary Grant, and he brings a handsomeness unafraid to make itself ridiculous. Amber McMahon’s drier and more intentional take on Eve plays well against the fluffy, flustered male lead. Standouts in the ensemble include Christen O’Leary, a familiar face at QPAC. I’m not sure what’s most impressive about her breathless ensemble turn – the shifts in character, hairpin turns between accents, or the sheer number of wigs she has to go through. Tom Davey also stands out as Leonard, the henchman originated with blue-eyed menace by Martin Landau, whose presence Davey  amplifies for the stage.

This is a show that really, really wants you to have a good time. Check it out if you like your escapism light, your heroes airy, your cast and crew frenzied, and your crop-dusting planes low-flying.

North By Northwest runs at QPAC from 27 November to 9 December. Book tickets at www.qpac.com.au

North by Northwest will play at the Adelaide Festival Centre from the 28 December to 20 January. For more information head to www.adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au/

Written by Rebecca Cheers

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